Edith Wharton's 'Twilight Sleep' Explores Decadence & Virtue-Signaling of 1920s

Edith Wharton in 1907. (Public domain/via Wikimedia)

Edith Wharton’s Twilight Sleep reminds us that decadence and virtue-signaling are not new.

We face a pandemic, the dawn of the new ’20s, and — we hope — the giddy rush of prosperity as reward and consolation for the world’s recent troubles. It won’t be as good as that. The first Jazz Age, wasn’t, either. I was reminded of this when returning to Edith Wharton’s overlooked satire of the modern society of the 1920s, Twilight Sleep.

The novel revolves around the ceaseless activity and enthusiasms of Pauline Manford, a remarried woman determined to be modern. The novel is observed through the eyes of Pauline’s  daughter, Nona. While not a celebrity, Pauline Manford is a prototype of Gwyneth Paltrow — the figure at the center of a group of other society women who are obsessed with doing good for others, by way of a spiritual renewal, spirituality being the province of gurus and Eastern mystics, naturally.

Nona observes that

whatever the question dealt with, these ladies always seemed to be the same, and always advocated with equal zeal Birth Control and unlimited maternity, free love or the return to the traditions of the American home; and neither they nor Mrs. Manford seemed aware that there was anything contradictory in these doctrines. All they knew was that they were determined to force certain persons to do things that those persons preferred not to do.

Pauline, busybody that she is, focuses her energy on faraway tragedies and moral enormities. She hopes to save the poor Bolivians from their earthquakes, maybe by teaching the Bolivians “not to believe in earthquakes, for instance.”

Nona has less use for this updated, deranged, and decadent take on Victorian moral striving. She belongs “to another generation: to the bewildered disenchanted young people who had grown up since the Great War.”

The twilight sleep that gives the novel its name is the pharmaceutical cocktail given to women of the time to ease the pains of childbirth, to make them forget those pains. It was particularly useful for society women who, heads filled with eugenics, wanted to do their best for the human race by conceiving healthy children.

The culture in which Pauline Manford thrives resembles the one that surrounds and suffocates modern, ambitious women on the Internet today. Such women publicize their moral and aesthetic exertions, but we see their lack of care for a real inner life. There are routines, daily rituals, and empowering mantras, but no deliberate rest or quiet. Pauline had been on “rest cures” of course, but “during a rest-cure one was always busy resting; every minute was crammed with passive activities.”

There is a spiritual life of sorts, but it has no dark nights of the soul, only little “operations” and fixes that are sold. Pauline is obsessed with the ablutions of self-care, though they have a distinctly 1920s focus on superior hygiene rather than the more current “pampering.” And romantic failure lies not so far behind the aesthetic and moral appearances achieved at great cost. Pauline’s divorce has wrecked her ex-husband. And her second marriage is being harmed by the adultery of her new husband with his stepson’s wife.

It’s this affair that leads to the sudden dramatic conclusion, and it momentarily moves Nona from her position as a mere mordant observer of modern life to that of a suffering and redemptive figure in a story centered on her mother, who seeks to live a life denuded of suffering and the need for redemption.

We often have a jokey way of looking back at films or novels, noting that their well-plotted turns and happenstance would be impossible in a world of smartphones.

For Pauline Manford and her peers, an unexpected hour might come — one that isn’t scheduled with uplift. And in that hour, there is a chance for a real confrontation with the self. If they had access to social networks, Pauline and Nona Manford, we imagine, could probably continue on their courses undisturbed: Pauline with activity to distract her from life, and Nona observing and satirizing without any risk to herself. As Cheryl Miller observed, the worldview on parade inculcates fear and cowardice. But the desire to “solve” all problems technically — even personal or spiritual problems — before they exact a cost is a retreat from life itself.

Wharton’s novel was little appreciated in its time, and it hasn’t benefited from the same revival of interest that eventually rescued F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, another Jazz Age novel. Maybe it’s because our culture is created and largely controlled by latter-day Pauline (and Paul) Manfords. Gatsby’s novel is held to reject the American dream itself as a falsity, obscene wealth as corrupting, and the WASP ruling class as a permanent source of oppression, despite its evident decline. Compared with Wharton’s novel, which cuts deeper and is more personal, Gatsby looks like a cheap attempt at scapegoating. For Twilight Sleep is a satire of the modern age, but it targets some of our permanent temptations. If we’re about to embark on a new Roaring Twenties, Wharton’s book will remind us that we’ve been there before.


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